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By Mitch Ambrose
In the waning days of 2020, the outgoing 116th Congress passed a legislative package that provides roughly $900 billion in pandemic-response funding, finalizes federal agency appropriations for fiscal year 2021, and makes the most significant updates to federal energy policy in more than a decade.
The pandemic relief provisions do not contain funds to address disruptions to research projects, which a bipartisan group of lawmakers had sought to include, nor do they contain any of the billions of dollars in “emergency” stimulus spending on science facilities that House Democrats had proposed. The bill does provide $23 billion in general relief funds for higher education institutions, though that is much less than the $120 billion requested by university associations.
The bill’s ordinary appropriations removed the threat of a government shutdown and yielded few surprises for science agencies. Most received level topline budgets or moderate increases near the amounts initially proposed by the House and Senate, with a few targeted boosts for priority technology areas. For example, Congress increased the National Science Foundation budget 2.5% to just under $8.5 billion for fiscal year 2021 while also endorsing the agency’s proposals to significantly expand work in quantum information science and artificial intelligence.
The Department of Energy Office of Science budget was held essentially flat at just above $7 billion, with each of its six disciplinary programs funded at or just above their fiscal year 2020 levels. However, as with NSF, the legislation directs DOE to significantly expand funding for quantum information science and artificial intelligence, which could put some pressure on core research programs.
One exception to the general trend of steady toplines is that funding for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration surged just over $3 billion to $19.7 billion. Most of the additional resources are directed toward nuclear infrastructure modernization initiatives, such as reconstituting plutonium production capabilities at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The package’s energy policy provisions, called the Energy Act, update congressional direction for DOE’s applied energy offices and fusion research program. The act recommends particularly large budget increases for carbon management R&D, advanced reactor technologies, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. While this funding is contingent on future appropriations, the act also sets goals for large-scale technology projects that prefigure new funding opportunities for commercial ventures in addition to continued support for R&D at universities and DOE’s national labs. For instance, it directs DOE to pursue six major carbon capture technology demonstration projects within five years and to create a fusion technology development program that reimburses participants only after they achieve specific project milestones.
Passing the Energy Act was a high priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) as she served her third and final term as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She has cast the legislation as a long-overdue successor to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Committee Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) worked closely with her on the effort, and with Democrats now taking over the Senate, he will take her spot as chair.
A number of congressional Democrats framed the act as a prelude to more aggressive steps. House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called it a “down payment,” while incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) welcomed it as a climate policy win in a “difficult political environment.” He argued, though, that the legislation is inadequate against the threats of climate change and said he plans to work with the Biden administration to “deliver bold climate action in the Senate.”
The author is Director of FYI.
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